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JUST before the World War we seemed to be on the verge 
of startling revelations in animal behavior. " Rolf," the 
Ayrdale terrier of Mannheim, was writing affectionate letters 
to Professor William Mackenzie of Genoa, and the Elberfeld 
stallions were easily solving such problems in mental arith- 
metic as extracting the cube root of 12,167, to the discomfiture 
of certain German professors, who had never been able to 
detect similar signs of intelligence in their students. The 
possibilities of animal correspondence struck me as so promis- 
ing that I longed to dispatch letters and questionnaires to all 
the unusual insects of my acquaintance. But dismayed at the 
thought of the quantity of mail that might reach me, especially 
from the many insects that have been misrepresented by the 
taxonomists or maltreated by the economic entomologists, I 
decided to proceed with caution and to confine myself at first to 
a single letter to the most wonderful of all insects, the queen of 
the West African Termes bellicosus. During the autumn of 
1915 my friend, Mr. George Schwab, missionary to the 
Kamerun, kindly undertook to deliver my communication to a 
populous termitarium of this species in his back yard in the 
village of Okani Olinga. He subsequently wrote me that my 
constant occupation with the ants must have blinded me to the 
fact that the termitarium, unlike the formicarium, contains a 
king as well as a queen, but that the bellicosus king was so 
accustomed to being overlooked, even by his own offspring, that 
he not only pardoned my discourtesy but condescended to 

1 Read at the Symposium of The American Society of Naturalists, 
Princeton Meeting, Dec. 30th, 1919. 


answer my letter. Mr. Schwab embarked for Boston in 1917. 
Off the coast of Sierra Leone his steamer was shelled by a 
German submarine camouflaged as a small boat in distress, but 
succeeded in escaping and what would have been another 
atrocity, the loss of the king's letter, was averted. It runs as 
follows : 

Dear Sir: Your communication addressed to my most glori- 
ously physogastric consort, was duly received. Her majesty, 
being extremely busy with oviposition — she has laid an egg 
every three minutes for the past four years — and fearing that 
an interruption of even twenty minutes might seriously upset 
the exquisitely balanced routine of the termitarium, has re- 
quested me to acknowledge your expression of anxiety con- 
cerning the condition of the society in which you are living 
and to answer your query as to how we termites, to quote your 
own words, " managed to organize a society which, if we accept 
Professor Barrell's recent estimates of geological time, based 
on the decomposition of radium, has not only existed but 
flourished for a period of at least a hundred million years." 

I answer your question the more gladly, because the history 
of our society has long been with me a favorite topic of study. 
As you know, the conditions under which I live are most con- 
ducive to sustained research. I am carefully fed, have all the 
leisure in the world and the royal chamber is not only kept 
absolutely dark and at a constant and agreeable temperature 
even during the hottest days of the Ethiopian summer, but free 
from all noises except the gentle rhythmic dropping of her 
majesty's eggs and the soft footfalls of the workers on the 
cement floor as they carry away the germs of future popula- 
tions to the royal nurseries. And you will not wonder at my 
knowledge of some of the peculiarities of your society when I 
tell you that in my youth I belonged to a colony that devoured 
and digested a well-selected library belonging to a learned mis- 
sionary after he had himself succumbed to the appetite of one 
of the fiercest tribes of the Kamerun. If I extol the splendid 
solutions of sociological problems by my remote ancestors, I 
refrain from suggesting that your society would do well to 
imitate them too closely. This, indeed, would be impossible. 
I believe, nevertheless, that you may be interested in my re- 
marks, for, though larger and more versatile, you and your 
fellow human beings are after all only animals like myself. 

According to tradition our ancestors were descended in 
early Cretaceous times from certain kind-hearted old cock- 
roaches that lived in logs and fed on rotten wood and mud. 


Their progeny, the aboriginal termites, although at first con- 
fined to this apparently unpromising diet, made two important 
discoveries. First, they chanced to pick up a miscellaneous 
assortment of Protozoa and Bacteria and adopted them as an 
intestinal fauna and flora, because they were able to render 
the rotten wood and mud more easily digestible. The second 
discovery, more important but quite as incidental, was nothing 
less than society. Our ancestors, like other solitary insects, 
originally set their offspring adrift to shift for themselves as 
soon as they hatched, but it was found that the fatty dermal 
secretions, or exudates of the young, were a delicious food and 
that the parents could reciprocate with similar exudates as well 
as with regurgitated, predigested cellulose. Thenceforth par- 
ents and offspring no longer lived apart, for an elaborate ex- 
change of exudates, veritable social hormones, was developed, 
which, continually circulating through the community, bound 
all its individuals together in one blissful, indissoluble, syn- 
trophic whole, satisfied to make the comminution and digestion 
of wood and mud the serious occupation of existence, but the 
swapping of exudates the delight of every leisure moment. It 
may be said, therefore, that our society did not arise, like yours, 
from a combination of selfish predatism and parasitism but 
from a cooperative mutualism, or symbiosis. In other words, 
our ancestors did not start society because they thought the> 
loved one another, but they loved one another because they 
were so sweet, and society supervened as a necessary and un- 
foreseen by-product. 

You will admit that no society could have embarked on its 
career through the ages with more brilliant prospects. The 
world was full of rotten wood and mud and no laws interfered 
with distilling and imbibing the social hormones. But in the 
Midcretaceous our ancestors struck a snag. Not only had all 
the members of society begun to reproduce in the wildest and 
most unregulated manner, but their behavior toward one 
another had undergone a deterioration most shocking to behold. 
The priests, pedagogues, politicians and journalists having 
bored their way up to the highest strata of the society under- 
took to influence or control all the activities of its members. 
The priests tried to convince the people that if they would only 
give up indulging in the social hormones and confine themselves 
to a diet of pure mud, they would in a future life eat nothing 
but rose-wood and mahogany, and the pedagogues insisted that 
every young termite must thoroughly saturate himself with the 
culture and languages of the Upper Carboniferous cockroaches. 


Some suspected that the main value of this form of education 
lay in intensifying and modulating the stridulatory powers, but 
for several thousand years most termites implicitly believed 
that ability to stridulate, both copiously and sonorously, was 
an infallible indication of brain-power. The politicians and 
the journalists — well, were it not that profanity has been con- 
sidered to be very bad form in termite society since the Miocene, 
I might make a few comments on their activities. Suffice it to 
say that they consumed even more cellulose than the priests 
and pedagogues and secreted such a quantity of buncombe and 
flapdoodle that they well nigh asphyxiated the whole termi- 
tarium. Meanwhile in the very foundations of the common- 
wealth anarchists, syndicalists, I. W. W. and bolsheviki were 
busy boring holes and filling them with dynamite, while the 
remainder of society was largely composed of profiteers, 
grafters, shysters, drug-fiends and criminals of all sizes inter- 
spersed with beautifully graduated series of wowsers, morons, 
feeble-minded, idiots and insane. [At this point the king has 
introduced a rather trivial note on the word " wowser." This 
word, he says, was first employed by the termites of Australia 
but later adopted by the human inhabitants of that continent, 
to designate an individual who makes a business of taking the 
joy out of life, one who delights in pouring cold water into his 
own and especially into other peoples' soup. The term appears 
to be onomatopoeic to judge from a remark by one of our 
postcretaceous philologists who asserts that "whenever the 
wowser saw termites dancing, swearing, flirting, smoking or 
over-indulging in the social hormones, he sat up on his hind 
legs, looked very solemn, swelled out his abdomen and said 

To such depths, my dear sir, the letter continues, had termite 
society fallen in the Midcretaceous. The few sane termites 
still extant were on the point of giving up social life altogether 
and of returning to the solitary habits of the Palseodictyoptera, 
but a king, Wuf-wuf IV., of the 529th dynasty, succeeded in 
initiating those reforms which led our ancestors to complete 
the most highly integrated social organization on the planet. 
He has aroused the enthusiastic admiration and emulation of 
every sovereign down to the present time. I can best describe 
him by saying that in his serious moments he displayed the 
statesmanship of a Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Solon and 
Pericles rolled into one and that in his moments of relaxation 
he was a delightful blend of Aristophanes, Lucian, Kabelais, 
Anatole France and Bernard Shaw. This king had the happy 


thought to refer the problems of social reform to the biologists. 
They were unfortunately few in number and difficult to find, 
because each was sitting in his hole in some remote corner of 
the termitarium, boring away in blissful ignorance of the de- 
pravity of the society to which he belonged. In obedience to 
the king's request, however, they were finally rounded up and 
persuaded to meet together annually just after the winter sols- 
tice for the purpose of stridulating about the relations of biol- 
ogy to society. After doing this for ten million years they 
adopted a program as elegant as it was drastic for the regen- 
eration of termite society, and during the remaining fifteen 
million years of the Cretaceous they succeeded in putting their 
plan into operation. I can give you only the baldest outline of 
this extraordinary achievement. 

Our ancient biological reformers started with the assump- 
tion that a termite society could not be a success unless it was 
constructed on the plan of a superorganism, and that such a 
superorganism must necessarily conform to the fundamental 
laws of the individual organism. As in the case of the indi- 
vidual, its success would have to depend on the adequate solu- 
tion of the three basic problems of nutrition, reproduction and 
protection. It was evident, moreover, that these problems 
could not be solved without a physiological division of labor 
among the individuals composing the society, and this, of 
course, implied the development of classes, or castes. Termite 
society was therefore divided into three distinct castes, accord- 
ing to the three fundamental organismal needs and functions, 
the workers being primarily nutritive, the soldiers defensive 
and the royal couple reproductive. Very fortunately our 
earliest social ancestors had not imitated our deadly enemies, 
the ants, who went crazy in the early Cretaceous on the subject 
of parthenogenesis and developed a militant suffragette type 
of society, but insisted on an equal representation of both sexes 
in all the social activities. Our society is therefore ambisexual 
throughout, so that, unlike the ants, we have male as well as 
female soldiers and workers. It was early decided that these 
two castes should be forbidden to grow wings or reproduce 
and that the royal caste should be relieved from all the labor of 
securing food and defending the termitarium in order to de- 
vote all its energies to reproduction. The carrying out of this 
scheme yielded at least two great advantages : first, the size of 
the population could be automatically regulated to correspond 
with the food-supply, and second, the production of perfect off- 
spring was greatly facilitated. 


During the late Cretaceous period of which I am writing 
our practical geneticists, in obedience to a general demand for 
a more varied diet, made two important contributions to our 
social life. The plant breeders found that what was left of the 
comminuted wood after its passage through the intestines of 
the worker termites could be built up in the form of elaborate 
sponge-like structures and utilized as gardens for the growth of 
mushrooms. Cultivation was later restricted to a few selected 
varieties of mushrooms which the biochemists had found to 
contain vitamins that accelerated the growth of the tissues in 
general and of the spermatocytes and oocytes in particular. 
And for this reason only the royal caste and the young of the 
other castes were permitted to feed on this delicious vegetable 
food. The animal breeders of that age made a more spectacu- 
lar though less useful contribution when they persuaded our 
ancestors to adopt a number of singular beetles and flies and 
to feed and care for them till they developed exudate organs. 
Owing to the stimulating quality of their exudates these crea- 
tures, the termitophiles, added much variety to the previously 
somewhat monotonous social hormones. This quality, how- 
ever, made it necessary to restrict the number of termitophiles 
in the termitarium for the same reason that your society would 
find it advisable to restrict the cattle industry if your animal 
breeders had succeeded in producing breeds of cows that yielded 
highballs and cocktails instead of milk. 

It is, of course, one thing to have a policy and quite another 
to carry it out. The anarchistic elements in our late Cretaceous 
society were so numerous and so active that great difficulty was 
at first experienced in putting the theories of the biological re- 
formers into practise, but eventually, just before the Eocene 
Tertiary, a very effective method of dealing with any termite 
that attempted to depart from the standards of the most perfect 
social behavior was discovered and rigorously applied. The 
culprit was haled before the committee of biochemists who 
carefully weighed and examined him and stamped on his ab- 
domen the number of his colloidal molecules. This number was 
taken to signify that his conduct had reduced his social useful- 
ness to the amount of fat and proteids in his constitution. He 
was then led forth into the general assembly, dismembered and 
devoured by his fellows. 

I describe these mores reluctantly and very briefly, because 
I fear that they may shock your sensibilities, but some mention 
of them is essential to an appreciation of certain developments 
in our society within recent millennia. So perfectly socialized 


have we now become that not infrequently a termite who has a 
slight indisposition, such as a sore throat or a headache or has 
developed some antisocial habit of thought or is merely grow- 
ing old, will voluntarily resort to the committee of biochemists 
and beg them to stamp him. He then walks forth with a 
radiant countenance, stridulating a refrain which is strangely 
like George Eliot's "O, may I join the choir invisible!" and 
forthwith becomes the fat and proteid "Bausteine" of the 
crowd that assembles on hearing the first notes of his petition. 
If you regard this as an even more horrible exhibition of our 
mores, because it adds suicide to murder and cannibalism, I can 
only insist that you are viewing the matter from a purely 
human standpoint. To the perfectly socialized termite nothing 
can be more blissful or exalted than feeling the precious fats 
and proteids which he has amassed with so much labor, melt- 
ing, without the slightest loss of their vital values, into the 
constitutions of his more vigorous and socially more efficient 
fellow beings. 

Now I beg you to note how satisfactory was our solution of 
the many problems with which all animals that become social 
are confronted. I need hardly emphasize the matter of nutri- 
tion, for you would hardly contend that animals that can digest 
rotten wood and mud, grow perennial crops of mushrooms on 
their excrement, domesticate strange animals to serve as ani- 
mated distilleries and digest not only one anothers' bodies but 
even one anothers' secretions, have anything to learn in diete- 
tics or food conservation. Our solution of the great problems 
of reproduction, notably those of eugenics, is if anything, even 
more admirable, for by confining reproduction to a special 
caste, by feeding it and the young of the other castes on a pecu- 
liarly vitaminous diet and by promptly and deftly eliminating 
all abnormalities, we have been able to secure a physically and 
mentally perfect race. You will appreciate the force of this 
statement when I tell you that in a recent census of the 236,498 
individuals comprising the entire population of my termitar- 
ium, I found none that had hatched with more than the normal 
number of antennal joints or even with a misplaced macro- 
chseta. The only anomaly seen was one of no social signifi- 
cance, a slightly defective toenail in three workers. Kigid 
eugenics combined with rigid enforcement of the regulations 
requiring all antisocial, diseased and superannuated individuals 
promptly to join the choir invisible, at the same time solved 
the problems of ethics and hygiene, for we were thus enabled, 
so to speak, to ram virtue and health back into the germ-plasm 


where they belong. And since we thus compelled not only our 
workers and soldiers but even our kings and queens to be born 
virtuous and to continue so throughout life, the Midcretaceous 
wowser caste, finding nothing to do, automatically disappeared. 
The problem of social protection was solved by the creation of 
a small standing army of cool-headed, courageous soldiers, to 
be employed not in waging war but solely for defensive pur- 
poses, and the development on the part of the soldiers and 
workers of ability to construct powerful fortifications. It may 
be said that the formation of the soldier caste as well as the in- 
vention of our cement subway architecture — an architecture 
unsurpassed in magnitude, strength and beauty, considering 
the small stature of our laborers and the simple tools they 
employ — was due to the repeated failures, extending over many 
million years, of our politicians to form a league of nations 
with our deadly enemies, the ants. After a recent review of 
the army and an inspection of the fortifications of my termi- 
tarium I agree with several of the kings of the present dynasty 
who believed that we ought really to be very grateful to our 
archenemies for their undying animosity. 

Such was our society at the beginning of the Eocene, and 
such with slight improvements in detail, it has remained for 
the past fifty million years, living and working with perfect 
smoothness, as if on carefully lubricated ball-bearings. Nor 
does it, like human society, live and work for itself alone, but 
with a view to the increase and maintenance of other types of 
life on the planet. On our activities depend the rapid decom- 
position of the dead vegetation and the rapid formation of the 
vegetable mould of the tropics. We are so numerous and our 
operations of such scope that we are a very important factor in 
accelerating the growth of all the vegetation, not only of the 
dry savannahs and pampas but even of huge rain-forests like 
those of the Congo, the Amazon and the East Indies. And 
when you stop to consider that the animal and human life of 
the tropics absolutely depends on this vegetation you will not 
take too seriously the reports of our detractors who are for- 
ever calling attention to our destructive activities. One author, 
I am told, asserts that certain South American nations can 
never acquire any culture because the termites so quickly eat 
up all their libraries, and another gives an account of a gentle- 
man in India who went to bed full of whiskey and soda and 
awoke in the morning stark naked, because the termites had 
eaten up his pyjamas. How very unfair to dwell on the loss 
of a few books and a suit of pyjamas and not even to mention 


our beneficent and untiring participation in one of the most 
important biocoenoses! 

You will pardon me if after this hasty sketch of our history 
I am emboldened to make a few remarks about your society, 
and in what I say you will, I hope, make due allowance both 
for the meagerness of my sources of information and the limita- 
tions of my understanding. I must confess that to me your 
society wears a strangely immature and at the same time senile 
aspect, the appearance, in fact, of a chimera, composed of the 
parts of an infant and those of a white-haired octogenarian. 
Although your species has been in existence little more than 
one hundredth of the time covered by our evolution, you are 
nevertheless such huge and gifted animals, that it is surprising 
to find you in so imperfect a stage of socialization. And 
although every individual in your society seems to crave social 
integration with his fellows, it seems to be extremely difficult 
to persuade him to abate one tittle of all his natural desires and 
appetites, and every individual resists to the utmost any pro- 
found specialization of his structure and functions such as 
would seem to be demanded by the principle of the division of 
labor in any perfect society. Hence all the attempts which 
your society is continually making to form classes or castes are 
purely superficial and such as depend on the accumulation and 
transmission of property, and on vocation. And owing to 
the absence of eugenics and birth-control and to your habit 
of fostering all weak and inefficient individuals, there is not 
even the dubious and slow-working apparatus of natural selec- 
tion to provide for the organic fixation of castes through 
heredity. So immature is your society in these respects that 
it might be described as a lot of cave-men and cave-women play- 
ing at having a perpetual pink tea or Kaffeeklatsch. 

But the senile aspect of your society impresses me as even 
more extraordinary, because our society — and the same is true 
of that of all other social insects — is perennially youthful and 
vigorous, owing to our speedy elimination of the old and infirm. 
And this brings me to a matter that interests me greatly and 
one on which I hope we shall have much further correspond- 
ence. To be explicit, it seems that though your society has no 
true caste system, it is, nevertheless, divided into what might 
be called three spurious castes, the young, the mature and 
the aged. These, of course, resemble our castes only in number 
and in consisting of individuals of both sexes. They are pecu- 
liar in being rather poorly defined, temporary portions of the 
life-cycle, so that a single individual may belong to all of them 


in succession, and in the fact that only one of them, comprising 
the mature individuals, is of any great economic value to society 
and therefore actually functions as the host of the two others, 
which are, biologically speaking, parasitic. To avoid shocking 
your human sensibilities, I am willing to admit that both these 
castes may be worth all the care that is bestowed on them, the 
young on account of their promise and the old on account of 
past services. And I will even admit the considerable social 
value of the young and the old as stimuli adapted to call forth 
the affection of the mature individuals. But, writing as one 
animal to another, I confess that I am unable to understand 
why you place the control of your society so completely in the 
hands of your aged caste. Your society is actually dominated 
by the superannuated, by old priests, old pedagogues, old poli- 
ticians and no end of old wowsers of both sexes who are forever 
suppressing or regulating everything from the observance of 
the Sabbath and the wearing of feathers on hats to the licking 
of postage stamps and the grievances and tribulations of stray 

I notice that your educators, psychologists and statisticians 
have much to say on human longevity, and you seem all to crave 
for nothing so much as an inordinate protraction of your egos. 
Psychologically, this is, of course, merely another manifesta- 
tion of your fundamentally unsocial and individualistic appe- 
tites. Your writers make much of your long infancy, child- 
hood and adolescence as being very conducive to educability and 
socialization, and this is doubtless true, but the fact seems to 
be overlooked that the great lengthening of the initial phases of 
your life-cycle is also attended by a grave danger, for it also 
increases the dependence of the young on the adult and aged 
elements of society, especially on the parents, and this means 
intensifying what the Freudian psychologists call the father 
and mother complexes and therefore also an increased sub- 
servience to authority, a cult of the conservative, the stable and 
the senile. The deplorable effects of intensifying these com- 
plexes have long been only too evident in your various religious 
systems and are already beginning to show in the all too ready 
acceptance on the part of your society of the visionless policies 
and confused and hesitating methods of administration of your 

Unless I am much mistaken this matter of the domination 
of the old in your society deserves careful investigation. Un- 
fortunately very little seems to be known about senility. In 
our society it can not be investigated, because we do not 


permit it to exist, and in your society it is said to be very poorly 
understood, because no one is interested in it till he actually 
reaches it and then he no longer has the ability or the time to 
investigate it. When the social significance of this stage in 
the human life-cycle comes to be more thoroughly appreciated 
some of your young biologists and psychologists will make it a 
subject of exhaustive investigation and will discover the secret 
of its ominous and persistent domination. It will probably be 
found that many of your aged are of no economic importance 
whatever, and that the activities of many others may even be 
mildly helpful or beneficial, but you will find, as we found in 
the Midcretaceous, a small percentage, powerful and pernicious 
out of all proportion to their numbers, who are directly respon- 
sible for the deplorable inertia of your institutions, especially 
of your churches, universities and political bodies. These old 
individuals combine with a surprising physical vigor, a certain 
sadistic obstinacy which consecrates itself to obstructing, cir- 
cumventing, suppressing or destroying not only everything 
young or new, but everything any other old individual in their 
environment may suggest. The eminent physician who recom- 
mended chloroform probably had this type of ol d man in mind. 
Certain economic entomologists have advocated some more 
vigorous insecticide, such as hydrocyanic acid gas. This is, 
however, a matter concerning which it might be better to defer 
recommendation till the physiology, psychology and ethology 
of the superannuated have been more thoroughly investigated. 
It has sometimes occurred to me that your social problem 
may be quite insoluble — that when your troglodyte ancestors 
first expanded the family and clan into society they were 
already too long-lived, too " tough " and too specialized mentally 
and physically ever to develop the fine adjustments demanded 
by an ideal social organization. I feel certain, nevertheless, 
that you could form a much better society than the present if 
you could be convinced that your further progress depends on 
solving the fundamental, preliminary problems of nutrition, 
reproduction and social defence, which our ancestors so suc- 
cessfully solved in the late Cretaceous. These problems are, 
of course, extremely complicated in your society. Under nutri- 
tion you would have to include raw materials and fuel, i. e., food 
for your factories and furnaces as well as food for your bodies. 
Your problems of reproduction comprise not only those of your 
own species but of all your domesticated animals and plants, 
and your social defence problems embrace not only protection 
from the enemies of your own species (military science) but 


from the innumerable other organic species which attack your 
domesticated animals and plants as well as your own bodies 
(hygiene, parasitology, animal and plant pathology, economic 
entomology). Like our ancestors you will certainly find that 
these problems can be solved only by the biologists — taking the 
word "biologists" in its very broadest sense, to include also 
the psychologists and anthropologists — and that till they have 
put their best efforts into the solution your theologians, phi- 
losophers, jurists and politicians will continue to add to the 
existing confusion of your social organization. It is my 
opinion, therefore, that if you will only increase your biological 
investigators a hundred fold, put them in positions of trust and 
responsibility much more often and before they are too old, and 
pay them at least as well as you are paying your plumbers and 
bricklayers, you may look forward to making as much social 
progress in the next three centuries as you have made since the 
Pleistocene. That some such opinion may also be entertained 
by some of your statesmen sometime before the end of the 
present geological age, is the sincere wish of 
Yours truly, 

Wee-Wee, 43d Neotenic King, of the 8429th Dynasty of the 
Bellicose Termites. 

On reperusing this letter before deciding, after many mis- 
givings, to read it to so serious a body of naturalists, I notice a 
great number of inaccuracies and exaggerations, attributable, 
no doubt, to his majesty's misinterpretation of his own and 
very superficial acquaintance with our society. His remarks 
on old age strike me as particularly inept and offensive. He 
seems not to be aware of the fact that at least a few of our old 
men have almost attained to the idealism of the superannuated 
termite, a fact attested by such Freudian confessions as the 
following, taken from a letter recently received by one of my 
colleagues from a gentleman in New Hampshire: 

I do not understand how it is that an insect so small as to be invisible 
is able to worry my dog and also at times sharply to bite myself. A vet. 
friend of mine in Boston advised lard and kerosene for the dog. This 
seemed to check them for a time, but what I need is extermination, for 
I am in my eighty-fourth year.